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Markku Roinila Philosophy of Dreams and Sleeping: Ancient and Medieval views
Greek philosophy Greeks followed the traditions of Mesopotamia and Egypt in thinking that dreams were of divine origin. Compare Homeros’ Odyssey where there are two gates from the underworld admitting dreams to mortals, one of horn and one of ivory, representing truthful and deceptive dreams. Dream-oracles were common in Ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks never spoke of having a dream, but always of seeing a dream. Thus the dreamer was a passive in the process – thus the dreamer is receiving messages or vision from Gods (the same was thought by Romans). Widely discussed was the morality in dreams, the consensus being that moral character had an effect on the content of dreams. An introduction to Greek and Roman views on dreaming: Joseph Barbera: “Sleep and dreaming in Greek and Roman Philosophy,” Sleep Medicine 9 (2008), pp. 906-910
The pre-socratics Influenced by Thales, early Greek philosophers tried to understand natural phenomena in their own terms without the hypothesis of Divine intervention although the Divine voice-tradition also continued. The most well-known of the presocratics are the views of Heraclitus “the obscure” (535-475 BC). He emphasized the subjective nature of dreams in his phrase “for those who are awake there is a single, common universe, whereas in sleep each person turns away into his own private universe”. This can be interpreted to say that a person's dream world was something created in their own mind. The Pythagoreans seem to have supported the idea of Divine origin of dreams as they believed the that the air was “full of souls” capable of affecting dreams.
More presocratics Empedocles (490-430 BC) thought that dreams depended on the dreamer and described sleep as occurring from a moderate cooling of heat in the blood with death being the result of a total cooling. This view was followed by Parmenides and Leucippus, the first atomist, who also described sleep as something that happened to the body, and not the soul, and which occurred when ”the excretion of fine- textured atoms exceed the accretion of psychic warmth.”
Democritus Democritus of Abdera (460-370 BC) developed the first systematic and naturalist theory of dreaming. He was an atomist, according to which the universe consisted of an infinite number and variety of immutable (one cannot change it after it is created) atoms whose continual motion and interaction were responsible for the varied and ever changing nature of the world. According to Democritus, the universe consists of an infinite number of tiny atoms, which interact and gather to constitute visible, ordinary objects. These objects emit a continuous stream of images, or films, or effluences. Perception arises from the impact of these images on the sensory organs, whereas thought occurs when images penetrate the pores of the body, bypassing the senses, and directly act on the soul. The direct impact of images on the soul is also the explanation of dreams. He states that images can display all sorts of attributes of the objects which emit them. This is why we can have dreams, for example, of other people thinking, feeling and acting. ”The eidola penetrate bodies through their pores and when they come up again cause people to see things in their sleep; they come from things of every kind…but especially from animals, because of the quantity of morion and heat they contain.” In addition, dreams are affected by each person’s psychic motions, desires, habits and emotions. Basically emotions are, however, caused by external phenomena as the eidola received from other persons contains traces of their attributes. Democritus was the most influential philosopher of dreams in the Ancient world although today the views of Aristotle are much more valued.
Plato Plato (427-347 BC) followed mostly the divine tradition (for example, Charmides and Socrates’ dream in Crito). Also, in the Phaedo, he tells how Socrates studied music and the arts because he was instructed to do so in a dream. However, Plato also offered a naturalistic theory of dreaming in Timaeus. It is related to his theory of vision which is a product of a non-burning, light-giving ”pure fire” which streams out from the eyes and strikes external objects. “When the cognate fire is gone at nightfall, the visual stream is cut off. For when it encounters something different from itself, it is changed and quenched, as it is no longer of the same nature as the adjoining air inasmuch as the air lacks fire. Therefore it stops seeing and gives rise to sleep.” (Plato, Timaeus 45d3–7) Thus movement produced by this are transmitted back to the soul where visual perception occurs. At night the ”external and kindred fire” departs with a subsequent cessation of vision and a resultant induction of sleep. With the eyelids closed the ”internal fire” is directed inwards to equalize the ”inward motions”. Where such equalizations occurs there is quiet sleep and where it does not, there is dreaming. In addition, there can still be divination and when this happens, the site of dream prophecy is the liver.
Psychological component of dreams In Republic Plato discusses the terrifying content of dreams: ”…in all of us, even the most highly respectable, there is a lawless wild beast nature, which peers out in sleep.” Plato’s discussion sounds Freudian: in dreams there is bestiality, even incest which is normally repressed when awake. The difference is that in Plato these are uncovered while in Freud the desires or wishes are disguised. Plato also uses dream fantasy to chracterize his own enterprise in the construction of an ideal state. Especially the sexual roles are presented in this manner. The ideal state is presented as Socrates’ day-dream (458a).
Are we awake or sleeping? Plato formulates the essential metaphysical question of philosophy of dreaming in Republic 476c2-d4: ”- As for the man who believes in beautiful things but not in the existence of Beauty itself, nor is able to follow one who leads him to the knowledge of it, do you think that he lives in a dream or in a waking state? Consider: is this not dreaming, namely, whether asleep or awake, to think that likeness is not a likeness but the reality which it resembles? - I certainly think that the man who does this is dreaming. - The man who, on the contrary, believes that there is such a thing as Beauty itself, who can see both it and the things which share in it, and does not confuse the two, does he seem to you to live in a waking state or in a dream? - In a waking state certainly, he said.” Plato is arguing that if we cannot see how the appearances are related to the forms, we must be sleeping. Later Descartes, Hobbes and Malcom, for example, discuss this same question from a different point of view.
Theaetetus (157e-158e) Socrates examines and argues against a subjectivist doctrine of Protagoras who holds that all appearances are true for the subject to whom they occur. Socrates mentions dreams, illusions, hallucinations, delusions as counter-examples to this theory. Socrates asks whether he and Theaetetus are awake or asleep and argues that dreaming illustrates his theory. If one cannot separate between awaking and sleeping state, one cannot argue that dreams are not true for the sleeping subject. What is the criterion to argue that the appearances of the waking person are more true to the sleeping person? The dream-objects are thus, according to Protagoras, true to the dreamer while Socrates opposes the view. Aristotle was not intersted in this question.
Plato & moral questions in dreams Plato divided in the Republic the soul into three different parts: the desiderative, the spirited, and the rational. According to him, a vicious person is unable to restrain his sensual desires in sleep because the rational part of his soul is at rest. However, these desires do not disturb a virtuous person in sleep, since he has prepared himself against them by arousing his rational part and by soothing the desiderative and spirited parts before falling asleep.
Aristotle Provides the most systematic and largest discussion of dreams and sleeping in Ancient philosophy. Three essays on the topic: 1) On Sleep and Waking (De somno et vigilia) 2) On Dreams (De Insomniis) 3) On Divination Through Sleep (De divination per somnum) Litterature: David Gallop: Aristotle: On Sleep and Dreams (including essays, introduction, notes) Mika Perälä: Aristotle on the Perception of Perception: Seeing, Remembering, and Sleeping (Diss., HU 2010)
Rational approach Aristotle rejected the Platonic divination-doctrine. He began to study dreams and the dreaming process in a rational way. In On Sleep and Waking he identifies sleep and waking as diametrically opposed phenomena characterized by the absence of perception. Dreams are a sort of misperception and thus to be inherently deceptive in a way that ordinary perception is not. Dreams are on non-existent things or situations. “Waking and sleep belong to the same part of a living being, for they are opposites, and sleep appears to be a kind of privation of waking” (On Sleep and Waking, 435b25-7) In On Divination through sleep, he states, "most so-called prophetic dreams are to be classed as mere coincidences, especially all such as are extravagant," and later includes that "the most skillful interpreter of dreams is he who has the faculty of absorbing resemblances. I mean that dream presentations are analogous to the forms reflected in water."
Dreams & Perception On Dreams // Aristotle suggests that dreams are neither the work of judgement nor of perception in an unqualified way. Instead, dreams are the work of perception, but only of its imagining (phantastikon) capacity. Thus dreams are the work of imagination. What does this mean? Appearances or impressions that characterize dreams are the result of the perceptual mechanisms being activated, but in the absence of external stimulation. Thus when are having no external stimulation, our perceptual mechanisms produces the phantasmas or imaginations we call dreams. Sensory stimulation in wakefullness produces ”movements” within the body (probably bloodstream) which persists for a time after the external stimulation has ceased. Such prolonged sense impressions may give rise to delayed or false perceptions in wakefullness, particularly in emotional states or illnesses (compare illusions). These are exactly those that give rise to dreaming. Later Hobbes had a similar doctrine (decaying sense in Leviathan, ch. 2). Although Aristotle rejects the Platonian forms, he uses a similar method in arguing that one is sleeping, saying that in dreaming ”what is like something is judged to be that very thing” (461b29) Thus we think that the dream object is a real object. The dreaming subject mistakes a mere likeness for a genuine sense-impression and believes to be perceiving a real thing. But there cannot be judgement in dreams as there is no perception and this explains the acceptance of strange phenomena in dreams.
On Dreams ”…It is plain that the movements arising from sense impressions, both those coming from outside and those from within the body, are present not only when people are awake, but also whenever the affection called sleep comes upon them, and that they are especially apparent at that time. For in day-time, while the senses and the intellect are functioning, they are pushed aside or obscured, like a smaller fire next to a larger one, or minor pains and pleasures next to big ones, though when the latter cease, even the minor ones come to the surface. By night, however, owing to the inactivity of the special sense and their inability to function because of the reversal flow of heat from the outer parts to the interior, they are carried inward to the starting-point of perception, and become apparent as the disturbance subsides.”
Dreams from blood Thus dreams are in fact the result of persistant sense impressions travelling in the blood stream, activating perception in the heart. Thus Aristotle is trying to give a naturalistic theory of dreams (he is joined in this by Democritus and Lucretius). This happens all the time, but it is much more powerful during the sleep when the normal perception is suspended. As the stream of blood behaves differently in different times, the dreams may be life-like or bizarre. Because judgement is suspended during sleep, we accept bizarre elements in dreams as normal. Distinction between dreams and hallucinations – the cause is the same, but latter take place when awake.
More Physiological theory According to Aristotle, sleep and waking result from the disabling and activation of the body’s primary sense-organ, that is, heart. Sleep is induced by by the “exhalations” of ingested food which thickens and heat the blood, rising to the brain where the are cooled before coalescing in the heart. Similar effects are ascribed to soporific agents, states of fatigue an certain illnesses. Aristotle distinguishes sleep from temporary incapacities of perception, such as fainting, and describes sleep as a form of “seizure”. With this theory Aristotle helped advance the theory that dreams reflected a person's bodily health. It suggested that a doctor could diagnose a person illness by hearing a dream that they had.
Hippocratic-Galenic-tradition Aristotle’s essays influenced Ancient medicine and the later tradition. Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine supported his theory, and it is still practiced by some doctors of today. Dreams were seen to be signs of our internal conditions in the Hippocratic tradition. It was customary that a skillful physician interpreted dreams as part of his diagnostic and prognostic practice. Galen of Pergamum, a Greco-Roman physician, picked up where Aristotle had left off. A patient of his dreamed that his left thigh was turned into marble and later lost the use of that leg due to palsy. A wrestler, he had treated, dreamed that he was standing in a pool of blood that had risen over his head. From this dream Galen concluded that this man needed a bloodletting for the pleurisy which he labored. By this means of treatment the man was cured. “ … when the brain itself wishes to have rest on account of excessive activity, it induces to the animal a natural sleep, and especially whenever the nutritive capacity is in a position to take advantage of abundant moisture in itself…Dreams indicate for us the condition of the body. If someone sees a conflagration in sleep, he is troubled by yellow bile. If he sees smoke or mist or deep darkness, he is troubled by black bile. And a storm of rain indicates an excess of cold moisture, while snow, ice and hail indicate cold phlegm” (Galen, De symptomatum causis)
On Divination Through Sleep The belief that dreams have some significance is common and it does in fact make some sense. But the idea that God sends us these dreams is absurd and if that is denied, there is not much left in the belief of divination in dreams. Therefore the divination is really sign or cause of an event or co-incidences. Often dreams are signs of bodily condition.These signs are more easily noticed during sleep because even small movements seem to be big because there is less information from other senses. Dreams can be causes – we rehearse situations in dreams and that can affect our subsequent action (compare the Threat Simulation Theory by Antti Revonsuo) Most dreams, however, are co-incidences. The predictions they include are very often not fulfilled, especially in cases where the dreamer does not have the causal iniative. In these kind of cases movements of air or water towards sleeping persons. Aristotle critisized the views of Democritus, arguing basically the same as above – movements are more readily noticed during the night. Especially ordinary people are subject to these as they respond more easily to external stimuli.
More Aristotelian views Aristotle thought that the external stimuli affects the content of the dreams. For example, if someone is feeling hot, one may dream that one is walking through fire. Perhaps this can also be explained through blood stream – perhaps the blood would turn hotter and affect the appearances which feature in the dreams. In On Divination Through Sleep Aristotle rejects the view that dreams have predictive power – foretelling of future events based on dreams are just co-incidences. However, there are few exceptions. The most important is that dreams act as early signs of medical illness. The physical changes produced by such illnesses lead to movements or abnormal sensory impressions from within, impressions that can be better observed during dreaming. The same view (that dreams are indicative of humoral imbalance was held by Hippocrates and Galen). It is usually held that dreams have no telelogical function in Aristotle (such as divination), which is surprising as in Aristotle’s philosophy almost everything is teleological. There are other views, too. See Mor Segev: ”The Teleological Significance of Dreaming in Aristotle”, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, vol. 43 who discusses just the humoral inbalance as something which the dreams can bring up and which could be seen as their purpose. According to Aristotle, animals do dream (for example, a dog whines while sleeping), but the dream has no content (De Somno 1, 454a19-29)
Malcolm on Aristotle’s views Norman Malcolm: Dreaming For Aristotle, a dream is a certain sort of appearance presented to during sleep. In this is included the idea that the subject is aware of their dreaming, otherwise the dream would not exist.Thus dream is a mental experience that occur during sleep. Malcom argues that this idea is misguided. Our concept of dreaming is derived not from any such experiences, but from the familiar practice of telling dreams when we wake up. The waking report of a person is the only criterion to judge that the person has slept. In addition, the report is the only criterion to discuss what the person has dreamed about. Therefore there cannot be mistakes – one cannot remember wrongly one’s dreams.Malcolm argues that it is absurd to think that the persons is aware while being asleep. If Malcolm is right, most of the traditional philosophical questions about dreams would be misguided as dreams are usually seen as kind of movies inside one’s head, independent of the waking state. Problems for him: if animals dream, how can they report their dreams? Sleepwalking – one can demonstrate that someone is sleepwalking although the person does not remember this.
Remembering dreams In De Somnio Aristotle asks whether it be the case that people always dream when asleep, but do not remember (453b19). He does not accept that people always dream and that would be in contradiction with his physical views. Aristotle is just arguing that our waking memory should be able to distinguish dream images from waking images. But of course they can err. Gallop’s judgement: ”Malcolm was right to give dreamer’s reports a special status in the determination of what they have dreamt. But he was wrong to suggest that waking impressions or reports of dreams could not be mistaken, or that for someone to be properly said to have dreamt, nothing need to have happened in sleep at all” (Gallop, Aristotle On Sleep and Dreams, p. 56)
Epicureans Epicurus (341-270 BC) rejected the divination- theory. Following Democritus, he thought dreams are caused naturally by the effluences or films penetrating the sensory organs. However, dreams are not independent reality as Democritus argued.
Lucretius Lucretius (94-49 BC) continued Epicurus’ theory in his On the Nature of the Universe. The bizarre nature of dreams arises from the intermingling of surface films in the air prior to their entering the mind. For example, the image of a Centaur arises from the amalgamation of surface films from a man and a horse. The succession of images in dreams may be affected by waking preoccupations. Sleep is caused by the vital spirit (the soul atoms diffused throughout the body) becoming bombarded from without by the air to which it is exposed and from within by respiratory motions. As a result the vital spirit is fragmented with part of it ”forced out and lost” and part of it ”compressed and driven into the inner depths”. The result is a weaking of the limbs and loss of senescence. It is the part of the spirit forced inward that prevents outright death, with its rekindling producing wakefullness. “In principle, sleep occurs when the power of the spirit is scattered around the body, and part has been expelled and gone away, and part is compressed and has retreated into the innermost. For only then the limbs loosen and relax. (Lucretius, De rerum natura IV.916–919)
The Stoics & Cicero Cicero (106-43 BC): On divination – discusses the divinatory power of dreams and other forms of divination in the Ancient world such as astrology, haruspicy (predicting from remains of sacrified animals) and augury (predicting from omens and signs). “Posidonius maintained that people dream under the influence of gods in three ways. First, the soul foresees by itself because it bears affinity to the gods. Secondly, the air is full of immortal souls in which what one might call distinctive marks of truth are visible. Thirdly, the gods themselves converse with people when they are asleep.” (Cicero, De divinatione 1.64) Cicero argues that the Stoics, such as Chrysippus (280-207 BC) or Posidonius (153-51 BC) supported the divination view – thus dreams represents connection with Gods. He follows Aristotle in showing that the predictions in dreams are often co-incidences. Cicero rejects the view of Democritus and argues that dreams are the result of ”an intrinsic internal energy”, in other words slackening of the tension in the pneuma [pneuma makes an animal capable of perception and movement]. An active cognitive component: various memories and daytime preoccupations come to bear on the mind during sleeping.
Roman philosophers The Oneirocriticon or The Interpretation of Dreams by the Roman Artemidorus (c. AD 150) is the first comprehensive book on the interpretation of dreams. In this five-volume work, Artemidorus brought out the idea that dreams are unique to the dreamer. He believed that it was the person's occupation, social status and health would affect the symbols in a dream. The interpretations were often extremely strange. Macrobius (late 3 rd century AD): Commentary of the Dream of Scipio. Macrobius classifies dreams into five cathegories: 1) enigmatic dream 2) prophetic vision 3) oracular dream (oracle-like dream) 4) nightmare 5) apparation (quasi-perceptual). The first three are predictative, the latter two not. Nightmares are caused by mental and physical distress or anxiety by future and apparations are close to lucid dreaming.
Medieval philosophy of dreams The Ancient thinkers formulated the basic ideas of dreaming – one can even say that it took until the neuroscience until the questions changed. Thus the medieval philosophers continued along the same lines. Macrobius was thought to be the leading authority on dreams in the middle ages. This was probably because he supporte the divination- view which was compatible with the scholastic christian philosophy. Another important influence was the Aristotelian physiology of dreams.
Prelude: Augustinus Church Father St. Augustine is in fact part of Ancient world, but as he is the first Christian thinker who wrote about dreams, I will discuss him here. Augustinus is foremost known from the moral problem of dreams: sinful content in dreams (Confessions, book X) which we talked about earlier Another quote: ”A question sometimes arises about the consent given by those who are asleep when they think they have sexual intercourse either contrary to their good resolutions or against what is lawful. This does not happen unless there is something that we also though while awake, not by consenting to an opinion, but in a way in which we also speak of such things for some reason” (De genesi ad litterarum XII.15.31) Augustinus is following the Greek tradition: good moral character produces better dreams. We can battle against sinful dreams by purifying our thoughts and desires while awake with the help of God.
Sleep and digestion A new theme in the history of philosophy of dreams is the idea that the origin of sleep in corporeal processes is related to digestion. This view was included in the medical treatise called Pantegni which was the most used in Western Europe. In the treatise the vapours of digestion rise to the brain as the cause of termination of the sensory operations in sleep. The theory has some similarities to Aristotle’s physiological theory, but this theory was explained on a brain-centered view of perception instead of heart-centered view of Aristotle. However, Thomas Aquinas argued that there are two organs related to sleep: brains and heart and the definition of sleep depends on which one is considered central. Brain-centered view: ”This fine and sweet fume ascends from digestion and gently touches the brain and fulfils its small cavities so that all its activities are tempered down. This is sleep. In this state all powers of the soul cease to act and only the natural power is active, its acts more intensively when it is not preventedby nature. The inner soul which has excluded all functions of the senses presents to itself past, present and future things. These are dreams.” (William of Saint-Thierry, De natura corporis et animae I.11-12.)
Jean Buridan on causes of sleep(heart-centered view) ”Sleep comes as follows: when one has eaten, the food is heated and digested by heat which originally comes from the heart. This heating makes some vapours come from the food. Because of its warmth and fineness, the vapours ascend into the head and then, because of the coldness of the brain, they become colder and coarser and, therefore, they turn naturally back downwards. When they meet the heat of the heart they are diffused to exterior parts of the body and they push the heart of the heart and the spirit to the seat intensifying the heat in the digestive area so that the digestion of food will be completed.” (De somno et vigilia q. 5) In this theory the brains have only a cooling function in sending the digestive vapours back down towards the heart. The actual ceasing of the sensory operations takes place when the internal heat and sensory spirits do not flow from the heart to the sense organs as in waking state.
Types of dreams Anonymous treatise De spiritu et anima, based on Macrobius’s theory distinguishes between five types of dreams: 1) Oracular saying (in dream some authority (father, priest, God) says that something is to take place, something is to be done etc.) 2) Vision (something occurs exactly as it had happened in a dream) 3) Dream (something enveloped in figures which cannot be understood without interpretation) 4) Nightmare (something has worried a waking man and return to him when he is asleep) 5) Apparition (one has barely begun to sleep, and still thinks he is awake; sees men rushing down upon him or sees differing forms wandering about, which may be either pleasing or disturbing.
Character and physiology Everyone dreams according to one’s pursuits, and the skills of individual arts recur in dreams as they are imprinted in the mind. Dreams differ according to one’s infirmities. They also vary according to the diversity of one’s customs and humors. The sanguine dreams different dreams than the choleric, phlegmatic or melancholic. Others see red and coloured dreams, while melancholics dream in black and white
Dreaming and prophecy Thomas Aquinas (Questiones disputatae de veritate 12.3) Two kinds of prophecy: natural and supernatural When person is sleeping, we call this kind of dream apparition and the person is awake, a prophecy is vision. In both cases the soul is kept away completely or partially by phantasms. In vision there is need to understand while in apparition we just experience the prophecy